After several songs, they settled into comfortable conversation. The music was loud enough to let them drop their stilted mannerisms and talk without fear of being heard.
“You have improved since we last danced together.” Prince Darian said slightly too loudly.
“Really?” she glanced up with surprise from her feet where she was focusing on not treading on another person’s toes.
“Well…” he leaned in. “Not really, but your mother was nearby.”
“Oh.” He chuckled at the brief look of disappointment that he saw on her face.
“You have improved, just not in dancing. For instance, you’re not glaring at everyone who gets remotely close to us like last time.”
“That’s because I’m busy glaring at my terrible, poking, uncomfortable shoes. And they got too close. They blocked my view of the exits.”
“Oh? Were you that eager to leave?”
“Considering that my feet were bleeding in five places and my back hurt from imitating a metal rod for six hours, I would say yes.”
“How are your feet now?”
“I think that I can stand for maybe an hour more before they pass the verdict that heels are not shoes like I’ve been told, but medieval torture devices.”
“Would you like to take a break from dancing? Walk around the garden?”
“I probably shouldn’t stray far from my mother. She would be livid if I was out of her sight.”
“Oh. Well, we’d be alone.” She examined his face, trying to decipher his meaning, and he quickly backtracked.
“Sorry, that came out really wrong. That’s not what I meant. I just want to talk. I meant that you could take off your shoes.”
“Oh, well in that case,” she broke away from the horde of people on the dance floor. “Let’s go.”
The garden was indeed empty. Princess Anna walked barefoot on the stone walkway, her shoes held loosely in her hand. At her side was Prince Darian, his jacket draped over his arm.
They walked in comfortable silence until Prince Darian chuckled to himself. “My father would have me hung for carrying this jacket with such disrespect.”
“Your jacket? Why?”
“It was my brother’s, before he left for the war.” The Prince turned his gaze to starry night above them. “My arm didn’t even go halfway through a sleeve when he left. Now, I’m wearing it.” He turned his head to look at Anna. “You had a brother, didn’t you?”
“Three.” she said softly.
“What happened to them? I haven’t heard.”
“My mother tried to keep it under wraps. They were all rushed to the border war. They…” she took a breath. “They didn’t return.”
“Oh.” Prince Darian nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry. I know what it feels like. It sucks.”
“Yeah, it does. Even more when all people tell you for the next week are fake little comments like “Please accept my condolences” and “They are in a better place now”. But the messed up thing is that you know that they’re just aching to spin this death to their advantage. They don’t even care. To them, the war is just some far off fantasy that they occasionally put money into and practically consider charity. They don’t realize that our borders are being threatened. That their well being is being threatened. If we don’t get ahold of those crystals, our whole economy will collapse. ”
“Well, at least you’re not… dead.”
“Instead, I’m practically a prisoner of my own room, being force-fed training by a tyrant of a mother and her army of tutors to become the next great queen. Yeah,” she scoffed. “What a blessing.”
“Many would kill to live a life you lead.”
“Then they would kill themselves of boredom. Nothing changes. I can study a textbook and know what the next fifty years of our empire will look like. Houses rise and fall, and we are lucky that ours are at the top, but nothing really changes. For the rest of eternity, it seems, we will sit with perfect posture on our gilded thrones and lie to each other, talk behind each other’s backs, and bicker between ourselves while across the world, our brothers fight and die for an empire that doesn’t care.”
A heavy silence settled on them. Prince Darian looked down at the ground, his brow furrowed. His hands were jammed into his pockets. Then he spoke.
“What type of queen will you be, when we wed?” he asked.
There was a long silence, then a sigh. “I don’t want to be.”
“Wed to me?”
“No! No, it’s not- well- I mean…” She shut her mouth and collected her thoughts. “You’re a perfectly fine person, Darian, really. I would be honored to be wed to you, and I know that in our society, full of lying, pretending, sweet-talking politicians, that might sound insincere, but I promise that I mean it. It’s just that I don’t want to become a queen.”
“Why? Most people dream of such a position.”
“Not me. I’m no good at the etiquettes, the diplomacy, the negotiations, the deal-making and deal-breaking.”
“You could study.”
“I have been studying, for years, I’ve been studying. And I have learned things. I can predict what the other houses will do, what other people will do, but given any hypothetical situation, I cannot for the life of me figure out what my next move should be.” She lowered her head, and said softly, “And that would make me a pretty worthless queen.”
“Then what type of person would you want to be?”
“An unpredictable one.” The answer came immediately.
He smiled kindly. “People won’t like that.”
“Oh, I know. I want to do something absolutely mad: I want to unite the houses. Make them ally with each other, through diplomacy, so we can unite our forces to push for those crystals. If we do that, then we’ll be able to establish firm footing there. Our economy will be secure, and we don’t have to haphazardly waste lives.”
“Hmmm… I see.” She looked at him at his change of tone. His face now bore a look of calculation.
“What?” He stopped, and turned his body to face her. She searched his eyes, but there was no hint of the warmth that had been their earlier that night.
“I’m sorry, Anna. I really am.” His face and posture showed no hint of apology. She watched as he pulled his hand from his pocket and showed her a small recording device.
“What is that?” she asked cautiously. He thumbed a button, and the red recording light flickered off.
“Insurance. I really need this betrothal to go through, Anna.”
“I- What do you mean?”
“I know that when we’ve talked, you’ve been hesitant about this. And I just needed something to make sure that you would go through with it.”
“What are you going to do with that?”
“I’ll keep it, for now. Just until the wedding. If the other houses got any idea that you wanted to unite them … I don’t think that I need to tell you what would happen to their support of House Laurel.” He looked at her intently, all traces of good humor gone from his eyes. “Are we clear?” he demanded. “Do I have your word?”
“O… Of what?”
“That … as long as we both shall live-” his lips twitched upward at his joke ”-this betrothal shall proceed?”
“I…” Anna thought of her mother. “Yes.”
“Excellent. In the meantime, for goodness’s sake, behave yourself. Put your shoes back on. I would hate to wed to a completely uncivilized… You know, may I be honest?” He didn’t wait for her reply. “I don’t like you.”
He threw his jacket over his shoulder and crossed his arms, looking down at her with thinly veiled disgust. “I really don’t like you. When my betrothal to you was announced, I was… disappointed, to say the least. I don’t understand how such a well established house could have produced such a terrible daughter.” He shrugged.
“At least you’re aware of it. You were right, you know. You will be absolutely useless to me in diplomacy, negotiation, management, social navigation… all the womanly arts. The worst thing is…” he sneered. “You’re honest. There really is no place for that, especially in this empire. I don’t know where you belong, but you don’t belong here.”
Anna turned and began to continue down the path, trying to stop tears. “Anna, stop! Don’t you dare walk away from me!” When she didn’t, Darian caught up to her and grabbed her shoulder, but she shrugged his hand off.
She spat, “Don’t touch me.”
He smirked patronizingly, but resigned to walking by her side, a respectful distance away.
After a while, he chuckled, “But it’s not so bad, Anna, you should count yourself lucky. You have the same goal as I do. I want to unite the houses too. I think I have a better method, though. The thing that is preventing the houses from uniting is their belief that they possess power. I need them more dependent on a central authority- the union of our houses. It’s a simple matter of turning the other houses against each other to weaken them.”
“Against each other politically? And how exactly do you plan on pulling that off?” she challenged.
“Their armies need to be weakened to make them vulnerable, first.”
She stopped to gape at him, “Civil war???” He cringed, seized her arm roughly, and dragged her forward to keep walking.
“Again with your straightforwardness. Don’t say it like that-”
“Our brothers went and wasted their lives on the border, so instead you propose that we waste lives here instead?”
Darian’s eyes flashed with fury. He gripped her arm and leaned in. “Listen to me.” he hissed as she struggled to rid herself of his grasp. “My brother’s life wasn’t wasted. He was a short-sighted fool, going off to fight for the crystals. He fulfilled his purpose: he made way for me to come here, to this place, to unite the houses.”
Anna, for the first time in a long time, was frightened. Gone was the boyish charm she had been admiring from across the ballroom. Instead, there stood before her a person who, despite a life being taught to hide behind a mask, exuded spite, arrogance, and, worst of all, unwavering determination. Still, she tried one last time.
“So much bloodshed. Is that really necessary? Darian, bloodshed on our borders is one thing, but on our doorsteps?”
He didn’t even look at her, his blue eyes focused on a point far ahead. “Sometimes bloodshed is the only way.”